Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a human rights violation that is no respecter of persons. It occurs in every county, rural and urban, among all demographics, and within a multitude of industries. That said, those with the greatest risk factors for experiencing human trafficking are those made vulnerable by marginalization. Commitment to the empowerment model allows us to undo the harm of trafficking and control  in the ways we help survivors explore choices and find their voice. Understanding power and control, how manipulation and abuse occurs in relationships and systems, and familiarity with personal, community, cultural, and structural barriers to reporting, recovery, and prosecution builds holistic community responses to human trafficking.

For agencies, advocates, and preventionists who have been engaged in the movement against sexual violence for decades, this knowledge base and its accompanying set of skills are the foundation of our work.

What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking happens when a person exploits another for labor and services. This exploitation occurs among various kinds of economic activity: domestic service, agriculture, construction, landscaping, food and hospitality services,  tourism, door to door sales, factory work, and the fishing industry. It also occurs in  underground economies such as drug and weapon sales, traveling sales crews, begging rings, and in the commercial sex industry. The primary focus on human trafficking is financial gain-or in the case of minors trading sex for daily needs--survival. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 defines human trafficking as:

  1. Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  2. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. (22 U.S.C. § 7102(9)).

The model below illustrates human trafficking in terms of Action, Means, and Purpose: 

Some points to consider:

  • A commercial sex act is any sex act in which something of value is given or exchanged.
  • Smuggling is not the same as trafficking. Smuggling is a consensual transaction made for the purpose of bringing  someone over the border, but also creates a high risk situation for the person being smuggled that can lead to being trafficking. A trafficker will control and coerce labor through debt bondage and threats to expose an immigration status.
  • Movement or transportation does not need to occur to meet the definition of trafficking
  • We must take care to distinguish between sex work that is coerced/non-consensual (sex trafficking) and sex work that is not. The impact of conflating the two causes harm to people who experience both (It Has to be Their Choice, Hanni Stoklosa and Chris Croft, Journal of Health Services Research and Policy, forthcoming).  While we recognize there are strong feelings that sex work is exploitative and that views on efforts to decriminalize prostitution exist on a spectrum, advocacy that is trauma-informed and empowered supports a person’s right to define and describe their own experience. 
  • Force, fraud, and coercion are not required for the definition of sex trafficking for anyone under 18, but are required for the legal definition of labor trafficking with minors. Coerced drug sales is an example of labor trafficking among minors.
  • Any commercial sex exchange by a minor is considered sex trafficking, even if there is not a third-party exploiter/trafficker. This definition applies for a minor being violently exploited by an organized, professional trafficker; for a minor being exploited by an abusive “romantic interest,” caregiver, or family member; for a homeless minor who is shown by another homeless minor how they’ve been surviving; and for a minor who self-initiates commercial sex exchange. 
  • Any exchange of sex for anything of value by a minor falls under the legal definition (and protections) of human trafficking even if the minor defines their own experience differently. By law minors cannot consent to commercial sex.

The Intersection of Human Trafficking with Sexual Violence

While not all human trafficking involves sexual violence, the history of forced labor has always included rape and sexual abuse as methods of harm, fear, and control, and the modern expression of trafficking is no different. 

Any trafficking of a human for sex is sexual violence; many instances of trafficking of humans for non-sexual labor also include sexual violence as part of the force and control. Many people who are trafficked for commercial sex are also forced to do other forms of labor. While not all forms of human trafficking involve sexual violence, human trafficking is, broadly, a sexual violence issue. People being trafficked in any form are at significantly higher risk for sexual violence, and frequently have fewer options for recourse, safety, and recovery.

As sexual violence agencies, preventionists, and advocates, we can no longer afford to believe that human trafficking is not our issue. Survivors are depending on our insights, perspectives, experience, and wisdom.

The Landscape of North Carolina's Anti-Human Trafficking Movement

Unlike the sexual violence movement, the response in the last decade to human trafficking has not been survivor led, but the result of concerned community members stepping up to raise awareness, lobby for funding, and create advocacy organizations and regional coalitions. . And although victims/survivors of human trafficking have always been served within the sexual violence field, human trafficking advocacy as we currently know it “began” when the human trafficking  label was attached to it. 

NCCASA has been a leader in this movement from the beginning. In 2004 NCCASA with the NC Attorney General’s office convened an interdisciplinary meeting to address the problem of human trafficking. As a result, RIPPLE (Recognition, Identification, Protection, Prosecution, Liberation, Empowerment) was formed. An outcome of this meeting was North Carolina being recognized as 1 of 42 National Specialized Task Forces in the United States. NCCASA was funded to support victim response efforts through RIPPLE, which  eventually became the NC Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NCCAHT), with NCCASA incubating it to this day as it continues to build capacity. NCCASA Executive Director served on the NC Human Trafficking Commission, and our Associate Director was Board Chair and now treasurer of NCCAHT, and also served on Project NOREST, a project led by UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work  to address trafficking of youth in the foster care system.

The Anti-Human Trafficking (AHT) movement in North Carolina has received much attention and funding, with that funding being directed towards organizations to provide critical services to survivors, and to collaborate with other stakeholders to create a multi-disciplinary response in their local communities. And while there is much to celebrate, we must emphasize the fact that a movement neither initiated nor led by survivors will have significant gaps in identifying survivors’ most important needs. Looking beyond  emergency shelters that do not always provide housing for all survivors, what else contributes to a survivor’s well-being? Access to employment, a driver’s license, reliable transportation, childcare, recovery services, peer support, and court advocacy are critical needs. 

Popular intervention strategies that heavily depend on criminal justice response leads  to arrests, deportation and further marginalization. Survivors need support and advocacy to address the sexual abuse endured as children. Survivors need to make their own choices--which includes denying services without threats or judgment. They needed to feel safe and empowered. 

As this movement has grown,  two basic responses to human trafficking  have emerged. One that sees the problem as  isolated events that relies on on extraction, where the victims are physically removed from their location through arrest or rapid relocation, to achieve immediate separation from the trafficker and the area trafficked, despite extenuating circumstances such as having children, family, court dates, or emotional connections in the area where they were trafficked. According to this  Rescue/Extraction model, safety is often defined by those helping and can sometimes compound the trauma and barriers to services that survivors already experience. 

The other response engages the problem of human trafficking in terms of public health which  looks beyond individual risk factors and single incidences, and considers risk factors in the community, and culture. The public health approach sees racism, xenophobia, and transphobia as means of primary prevention that is essential for a holistic response to human trafficking. It looks upstream to the factors that contribute to someone being trafficked and doing the trafficking. Because this response considers the complexity of contributing factors, advocates understand the values empowerment and self-determination over quick fixes and paternalistic assistance.

How We Work with Direct Service Providers to Assist Survivors

NCCASA does work from an intersectional, social justice perspective. We center our work on the most marginalized, because when we do ALL are served. We bring this perspective in all our training, technical assistance, and collaboration with state and national partnerships. We recognize the impact of historical oppression on human trafficking--how it shows up in who is trafficked, equity in who can access services, and barriers to healing and well-being.

Our training and technical assistance reflects the needs that rape crisis programs and members are sharing with us--what survivors need, and what programs need to best serve them. As rape crisis centers are increasingly called on to assist survivors of human trafficking, NCCASA’s anti-human trafficking work continues to focus on building capacity to better serve survivors. 

If you are member agency of NCCASA, training and technical assistance around how to best serve survivors of human trafficking is included in your membership. And if you are not yet a member, you can find out more information about joining here. NCCASA has been engaged in the movement against human trafficking for over a decade; we encourage you to join us in that movement.

NCCASA is proud to serve on the Teach2Reach Curriculum Project Team

The Teach2Reach Project aims to enhance the well-being of middle and high school students across North Carolina by developing evidence-informed and developmentally appropriate content and protocols to teach students about sex trafficking and connect at-risk students with needed services.


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